AS a place of worship, it's verging on the bizarre: a tree stump in the grounds of a church which many believe depicts an image of the Blessed Virgin.
So far, more than 2,000 people have signed a petition seeking to prevent the removal of the stump, while scores more have turned up to say the Rosary and light candles.
However, the local parish priest last night advised people not to worship the tree. Fr Willie Russell said: "There's nothing there . . . it's just a tree. You can't worship a tree."
Workmen made the discovery of the stump at the Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, while cutting down trees earlier this week.
Locals from the town organised the petition in an effort to have the tree stump, which was due to be dug out of the ground yesterday, made into a permanent fixture at the church.
"We have almost 2,000 signatures on the petition already and we are going to continue getting more," local shopkeeper Seamus Hogan said.
Mr Hogan said the discovery was bringing people from all walks of life to Rathkeale to pray.
"It's doing no harm and it's bringing people together, from young and old to black and white, Protestant and Catholic, to say a few prayers so what's wrong with that? There's enough violence and intolerance going on in the world," he said.
According to Noel White, chairman of Rathkeale Community Council's graveyard committee, the trees were cut down because of old age and the danger they posed to the adjacent school yard.
"These trees will be replaced. However, I have given assurance that our committee will not be removing this tree stump," he said.
"Nature has a funny way of showing things up and let it be a freak of nature or something else but whatever it is, surely it is a wonderful thing to see so many people coming out to pray, especially young people who have been saying the Rosary in the church for the past few nights," he added.
"There have been queues of cars up and down the street of the town all day belonging to people who have never been here, all coming to say the Rosary and light candles.
"Maybe this is Our Lady's way of getting people back to the church."
A spokesman for the Limerick diocesan office said the "Church's response to phenomena of this type is one of great scepticism".
"While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition," he said.
A temporary shrine was erected at the tree stump last night where a vigil was held.